Joy runs like a shining thread through Joah May Freeman’s life. From martial arts to arranging flowers; reenacting the life of a pirate in full regalia to bridal makeovers, it’s all about making people happy and bringing joy to their lives.
“I was a nerd, an overweight underdog for most of my childhood into early adulthood,” she explained. “I got picked on for being chunky and smart. Now, I root for people not handed a silver spoon. When people are having a hard day, if I can bring joy by [whatever I do], if I can make them happy, that means everything to me. The world is too dark to not make a small difference.”
In her 37 years she has probably done more than most people 20 years her senior. A gifted child in school, she got into martial arts, doing so well that she and a friend became assistant instructors. “We wanted something physical but that was also useful, like being able to defend ourselves,” she said. “Many women do not know how to throw a punch or use an elbow effectively.”
So there it was, right in the beginning, the impulse to help other people — in that case, teaching self defense.
She moved on to Southern Missouri State University in Joplin as an international studies student where she learned mandarin and jumped at a chance to do a semester abroad. Traveling through Beijing, Guangzhou and Xi’an, China for six months, she hopped aboard a cable car to ride to the top of the ancient Great Wall of China. “I’ll never forget it,” she said. As she rode in awe high above the trees, the ancient wall, punctuated by tall stone watchtowers, snaked through rugged mountains. The oldest part of the wall was built about 3,000 years ago.
The China experience was one that few have. She and fellow students were studying immersive Chinese in Beijing Communications College. Later, in Guangzhou they worked as elementary school foreign language aides. They taught students to count and learn the alphabet in English.
“The kindergartners were hard to understand, but the middle schoolers and high school students would slow down and we could understand them,” she said. “They would also come up to us and try their favorite English phrases — for example, ‘hey, dude’ and ‘what’s up?’ ”
Most interesting was the lack of air conditioning, she said. “They had big ceiling fans and screens on the windows you could crack open. It was very open air.” Their toilets were quite different — “mini-toilets were quite simply porcelain bowls set into the ground. In a rural area it was just a hole in the ground with a hose.”
Returning to the United States in 2005, she visited her mom in Port St. Lucie — and there, although she didn’t realize it at the time, she was on the cusp of her adventures in bringing joy to as many people as she could.
Supporting herself was primary so she took a job with Creative Engineering Group. The company was overseeing road work by the Florida Department of Transportation and a few years after starting as a secretary, she was a contract support specialist keeping track of progress on projects. Enter future husband, Mark, a road inspector for a different firm, in 2009.
He had the perfect name: Mark “Happy” Freeman. He got the nickname years before he met her.
He says it’s because he’s always smiling as he plays drums in rock bands.
“He kept after me to come and see him play in the bands,” she said. Finally she went and they discovered they both had very creative sides. That was what brought them together as a couple. They married in 2017.
They began attending events like the Renaissance Festival in Broward County and others, dressing as characters to match the theme of the weekend. There are many of these fairs throughout the state and country. Each weekend has a different theme. Clothing must be authentic so she researched, bought at thrift shops, sewed some and tweaked others. With 30 to 40 costume parts, she can be anything from a Japanese geisha to a glittering Mardi Gras participant to a pirate — with makeup to match. “People always wanted to pose with me for selfies,” she said.
Joining a pirate group with other volunteers she learned to demonstrate replica black powder flintlocks and percussion firearms, fascinating kids and adults alike. Meanwhile, Happy, dressed as a minstrel, strolled around playing drums.
She learned fire eating — placing the flaming end of a torch in her mouth.
“People wanted to know if it hurt,” she said. “It takes a lot of practice, yes, you do get burned all the time. You do have to practice with real flames. No matter how seasoned a professional you are you get tiny little burn marks here and there when it comes in contact with your hands, arms and legs. Thank goodness they were only superficial.”
She had a couple of accidents that did cause more trouble though.
“I was doing an event on a patio and somebody opened the door and a huge gust of wind flapped the flame right over my face. I burned my eyebrows and eyelashes on the right side of my face!”
Another time she was spinning the torches, called poi, which translates from Maori to “ball,” and a torch hit a part of her costume and singed it.
“The audience couldn’t believe their eyes when I performed fire tricks and a common question was if I had coated it with something so I didn’t get burned. I hadn’t. To the kids, I always told them it tasted a little spicy and then smacked my lips like a tasty meal to make them laugh.”
Fire performers use a variety of toxic fuels. She chose Coleman camping fuel.
“I wasn’t too concerned with toxicity as none of it was ever swallowed,” she explained, “I rinsed and gargled with water and spit after every performance to make sure my mucus membranes were cleared.”
Fire eating was done with Kevlar wicking, soaked in the Coleman fuel, on a curved skewer stick. The flaming end is lowered into the mouth carefully, trying not to touch anything and then the lips are clamped around the skewer to snuff out the flames, much as you would put a candle out with your fingers by depriving the flame of oxygen.
She also learned the most dangerous and spectacular of all fire stunts, fire breathing, where she blew out a big spray of fuel across a flame and it whooshed up in a brilliant display of fiery droplets. For that, she said she held lamp oil in her mouth, and then with a forceful spit similar to spitting out pool water, she blew it over a flaming torch creating a bright ball of flame [and scaring a few onlookers who had never seen it done before].
She performed at the Treasure Coast Pirate Festival, Camelot Days, and many renaissance faires and organization events, clubs and more. She became skilled at makeup, got her Facial Specialist license, and started her own company, Joah’s Artistry, both to find performance gigs and to do theatrical and special event makeup for others. The business took off — until the pandemic brought it to a standstill.
She has some great memories. “We had an entire 1700s period-appropriate encampment. We cooked our meals over a campfire in a cast iron pot. We camped in canvas tents with wooden stakes. We rolled around in the dirt with our fight scenes. We even had entire plays and skits to act out every day, including blowing up a boat on the water and catching our pub on fire.”
This year’s Florida Renaissance Festival in Deerfield Beach includes eight themed weekends ending March 26. A pirate invasion, a Celtic celebration, and the Mad Hatter’s circus are just three of them.
She eventually reduced her performing, and took a part-time job at Sailfish Brewery as the game night host. After a couple of years, the COVID-19 pandemic came and she hosted the games via Zoom. She also arranges flowers for a local florist a few days a week.
“I need a creative outlet for my mind to feel balanced,” she said.
She currently works at Watercrest, a senior assisted living and memory center where making the elderly residents happy makes her happy.
“It’s when we need help the most,” she explains. “I have real conversations with them where I help explain their situation. It allows me to think quickly and on my feet. Some of the most fulfilling moments are when a resident looks at me and says, ‘Thank you for taking your time with me.’ I want them to always think of me as the person who listened, who treated them as a person, not a disease process.”
So what’s her next adventure? Well, she doesn’t know yet, but, it’s most certainly just around the corner.
Lives in: Port St. Lucie
Occupations: Owner, Joah Artistry; works at a senior living facility; formerly a support specialist with Creative Engineering Group on Florida Department of Transportation road and bridge projects.
Education: Southern Missouri State University
Family: Husband, Mark “Happy” Freeman
Hobbies: Paddleboarding, cooking, trying exotic foods, mini-golf, watching Jeopardy! and loving on her little dog, Bibi.
What inspires me: “Tenacity and advocacy for myself and others.”
What most people don’t know about me: “I’m an introverted extrovert. After a ‘people’ kind of day, I need to recoup and relax for a few days.”